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Publishing should help research

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Last October Steven Inchcoombe became managing director of Nature Publishing Group (NPG). We asked him his views on STM publishing

What are the main information needs for researchers?

There is an expectation that there will be more and more information out there and researchers want to be able to filter the information. There is an increasing demand for the alerting of new, relevant information from publishers or aggregators.

There is also a requirement for information to be manipulated so that, for example, material from several different sources could be combined for teaching purposes. Text and data mining are not very mature yet.

The technology is fairly well established but there is not yet enough information that can be treated in this way and different formats of data can often reduce the usability. I think that the whole area of access to research data is also going to grow.

What will be the role of peer review?

Peer review is so important to quality and accuracy that we want to treat it with respect. However we have no interest in just defending the status quo. And peer review is a costly process, especially for high-end publishers like NPG. We only publish six per cent of what is submitted to us so we look at 20 papers for every one that is published.

Last year we did an open-review trial that had a very low response. However, one trial does not tell us, in my view, whether something is valid. It might be that it is too big a jump from where we are at the moment.

A new model would probably enhance rather than replace the current process. We are encouraging readers to comment on articles post-peer review.

What is NPG’s stance on open access?

NPG believes that open access will offer something of good value and benefit to some parts of the market but we do not see the author-pays model as appropriate for the Nature-branded journals today. Anything that is Nature-branded has to be best in its field and people who buy our journals expect that selectivity. The rejection rate that accompanies being so selective would make any authorpays charge prohibitive, and we don’t wish to introduce that barrier to publication.

Although the Nature-branded journals are not open access, Molecular Systems Biology, which we publish as a joint venture with EMBO, is fully open access and partly funded by author charges. We also publish a number of hybrid journals, such as EMBO Reports.

We recently announced that content from 65 of our journals will be available for free in 20 developing countries via International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP). This agreement complements our relationships with HINARI, AGORA and OARE to provide access for 100 developing countries to the information we publish.

We have a free-to-access preprint server, Nature Precedings. We also support and encourage self-archiving of the author’s final version of accepted articles and are compliant with the mandates from funding bodies such as NIH and the Wellcome Trust.

With the Nature titles we also seek funding from non-traditional sources such as sponsors and advertisers.

What are your predictions for the future?

Open access means that authors or their funders may have to pay to publish papers and I think this will make them demand a higher level of service from publishers. They will want more visibility about what is happening in the publishing process. And once papers are published, authors will want to know who has accessed them as they might want to approach them about possible collaborations.

In addition, self-archiving mandates require authors to do more work. If publishers are clever they will offer authors more help to do this. Also, as more authors are not native English speakers, publishers may have to help them more in how they express themselves in their papers.

There are more and more versions of content available to readers. To justify their versions, publishers must offer serious value such as in forward and backwards citation linking.

Another big challenge will be bringing in rich media such as audio and video. I don’t think subscriptions are going to be the primary business models for rich media services. We are experimenting with sponsors but if podcasts and similar offerings are going to be sponsored, we need to have a clear way of providing high quality. Authors could produce them themselves but we need a level of independence. We are trying to media-train some of our people to bring out interesting facts for such podcasts. The obvious place for us to start with this is Nature itself, as that provides content with the broadest appeal and has had a magazine front end for a long time.

The old print-centric one-to-many model has been transformed to digital. The overarching challenge now is to move from one-to-many to many-to-many.

Interview by Siân Harris